Hiring and Retaining Great Teachers in a High-Poverty Environment

By Raúl Sital
February 2018
A person smiling and shaking another person's hand

For the past 13 years I’ve served as the principal at Pasco High School, a large public school in a small city in Southeastern Washington. Pasco is an agricultural community, and many of our 2,250-plus students have experienced the challenges associated with that life, including poverty, displacement, housing insecurity, and interrupted schooling. We are a high-poverty, minority-majority school in which 80 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and 35 percent are English learners.

Despite these challenges, we’ve been able to build and retain an exceptional and diverse teaching staff, even in this era of severe teacher shortages. Our teacher turnover rate is consistently below the state average and the diversity of our staff is nearly three times higher than the norm. We can always do better, but we’re on the right track. With that in mind, I would like to offer two pieces of practical, hard-won advice about how to hire and support teachers in a high-poverty environment.

Hiring for Character

Given the current teacher shortage in Washington state and the challenging environment at Pasco High, you might assume that we can’t afford to be picky about who we hire. From our perspective, we can’t afford not to be. We’re going to invest a tremendous amount of time, money, and energy in our teachers—we can’t afford to make mistakes. More importantly, our students can’t afford it.

The teachers we hire have to be a good match for the students we serve. This is about more than race, ethnicity, or culture, although research—and our own experience—has shown that students do benefit from having teachers who share their cultural background. We absolutely make it a priority to hire minority teachers who have backgrounds that are similar to our students—and we’ve done a good job of doings so—but there are other qualities that are even more important.

We’re looking for teachers who are driven by a moral purpose. To thrive in our environment, teachers must embrace diversity, believe in the ability of our students to learn and succeed, and be driven by a desire to make a difference. They must be consciously and deliberately choosing to work in a setting like ours and with the kinds of students we serve. If that is not the case, then it’s unlikely they will last at Pasco High, which would be a disservice to them, to our staff, and to our students.

In our experience, teacher candidates who have a moral purpose also tend to be self-motivated, open to collaboration, and willing to take risks—all of which are essential for working in a high-poverty environment. Ultimately, we have found that hiring for character is more effective than hiring for any other reason, including previous experience, level of degree, or other qualifications.

Creating a Leadership Culture

You don’t hire passionate, highly motivated, risk-taking people and then expect them to sit back and take orders or to stay isolated in their classrooms. Instead, you tap into that passion. You strive to create a school culture that is highly collaborative and in which teachers are given multiple opportunities to take leadership roles. We have done this in several ways, but three stand out.

First, we have created a culture in which actions speak loudest and leadership roles—such as chairing a department, serving on a hiring committee, or leading a professional development effort—are earned rather than inherited based on seniority. If you show initiative, then you will definitely be given opportunities, no matter how long you’ve been in the profession or at our school.

Second, we give our teachers the opportunity to observe each other’s classrooms on a regular basis. That may sound like a simple strategy, but it has been one of the most radical changes we’ve made.

We began conducting peer observations as part of the three-year induction process we provide to cohorts of new teachers, but they quickly spread to the entire school. More than any other step we’ve taken they have helped break down the barriers between teachers and departments and have fostered a culture of collaboration and innovation. Our philosophy is “open classrooms, open doors.”

Finally, we have embraced the concept of shared leadership. As principal, I see my role as that of a colleague. It’s not about job titles—it’s about actions and relationships and what we believe. This plays out on the most practical levels—from hiring decisions to professional development choices to departmental budgets. We are in it together, and we make these decisions together.

In my experience, it is factors like these that can have the greatest impact on addressing the teacher shortage, particularly in high-poverty schools. While instructional support and classroom management strategies are important, what ultimately encourages teachers to enter and stay in the profession are these deeper, more fundamental motivations—the desire to work in a vibrant and collaborative atmosphere, to be innovative, and to make a difference.